It took a year of hard work and myriad details but the recent Southern Governors’ Conference held in Biloxi was a smashing success with eight governors and more than 500 guests attending. The conference was held at the Beau Rivage Casino Resort with overflow visitors housed at the new Hard Rock Biloxi and social events held at several Coast locations.
The host and this year’s chairman of the Southern Governors’ Association (SGA), Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, is confident the conference went well.
“The biggest challenge was how best to highlight in just a three-day event all Mississippi has to offer,” he says. “We wanted to showcase Mississippi’s people, music, food, culture and art to the fullest extent possible and plan plenary sessions that focused on real issues we all face.”
He feels the conference was enhanced by the Coast’s recovery and rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina.
“People are impressed with the progress Mississippi has made and were eager to see the spirit and character of Mississippians first hand,” he says. “As an example, Emeril Lagasse and his wife, Alden, hosted the First Ladies for a private cooking demonstration and lunch at Emeril’s Gulf Coast Fish House to demonstrate their commitment to recovery. Alden Lagasse is from Gulfport and tells us she is very pleased to be home.”
Craig Ray, director of the state’s Division of Tourism, says security measures of having nine governors in one place at the same time required careful planning.
“As host state, we supplied security people for each governor so we had 75 to 80 security personnel made up of highway patrol and some local police,” he said. “For background checks, we had to get Social Security numbers and dates of birth from everyone attending.”
To him, the biggest challenge was keeping track of all the moving parts and making sure good communication was maintained with his office, the Governor’s Office and the Southern Governors’ Association. A checklist was established early and monitored daily. Ray estimates that approximately 700 people played some role in preparing for the conference.
Joe Cloyd, a former aid to Gov. Barbour, performed as the consultant on the ground. He describes himself as fairly detail oriented, but his main strength is that he knows how the governor expects things to be run.
“Obviously, details consumed a lot of my time,” he says. “We created a really cohesive team. We were able to function as a team to get through all the details.”
Holding a public policy forum is the purpose of the conference, but Cloyd says the governor wanted to highlight what’s happening in Mississippi and have outstanding social events. Those events included a golf tournament at Fallen Oak Golf Course, a day trip to downtown Ocean Springs for shopping, a boat tour of the Pascagoula River and a two-hour sail on a Biloxi schooner.
“Coordinating those things was a big task but it all came together and people got a real taste of the Coast,” he says. “We regret there wasn’t enough time to get to Hancock County but a lot of people had cars and explored other areas of the Coast.”
Gov. Barbour says this year’s conference was a great blend. “The plenary sessions were important to the governors and policy makers in the Southern states and produced constructive conversation,” he says. “The guests of the conference were able to experience good food, fantastic music and fine art and crafts from a variety of Mississippi artists. I’m confident many of our SGA guests will come back to Mississippi again soon.”
Barbour and Ray have had positive feedback from those attending the conference. This year attracted the most governors and largest crowd of the three SGA conferences ever held in the state.
Ray attributes that crowd to interest in the governor’s policies along with a desire to see the area. “The Beau Rivage is a destination in itself and the Hard Rock is a new destination,” he says. “People wanted to see the Coast; there’s a brand new golf course and a lot of enticement to come. To my mind, it went real well. Both the casinos, all the volunteers and our people did a great job.”
The governor says the guests had a wonderful time and were on their feet when Mississippi musicians such as the Williams Brothers, Raphael Semmes and Mississippi Live, Ora Reed and Soulfire showcased their talent.
“Many of them commented on Mississippi not only as the birthplace of America’s music, but also the home of hardworking individuals and corporate citizens who are committed to building back bigger and better,” he said. “The eight other governors who attended with me all said it was one of the best SGA conferences in memory.”
He looks forward to traveling to West Virginia for next year’s conference. Visitors from that state came to Biloxi to take notes before planning their event.
“The SGA conference in Biloxi was the largest in several years. One of the most important topics discussed was building an energy sector workforce, especially advanced metal trades training that can help Mississippi take advantage of an estimated $15 billion to $20 billion in energy-related construction projects,” Gov. Barbour says.
“I encouraged Gov. Manchin and the SGA to further this important discussion at next year’s conference. Mississippians contributed thoughtful suggestions to this subject and it is important to discuss workforce challenges and progress again next year in another state of our Southern region.”
The SGA was founded in 1934 and is the oldest and historically the largest of the regional governors’ associations. In addition to Mississippi, membership is composed of the governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Virginia and West Virginia.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.